Paulelmo's Blog

The Sympathies Necessary for Being–Thoughts on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus

Friends,

I honestly, honestly, honestly don’t expect you to read this. I didn’t even read it myself. Oh, sure, I read it 15 or 16 years ago when I wrote it for Dr. Arnold Hartstein’s English 303, English Lit, class, but not now. Still, this was probably my most well-received writing assignment in a college career that had a lot of them.

It runs about 3000 words, but even if you can brave that, I wouldn’t suggest it for anyone who hasn’t read the book recently. You’ve been warned. Much love.

 

The Sympathies Necessary For Being

 

The words that serve this piece as a title are taken from the Mary Shelly novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. The context from which the passage is drawn is this: The creation has just finished recounting his travels to Victor, the creator, and has asked him for a mate, “as horrible and deformed as myself.” I believe, with this passage, the author describes the human need that fuels her writing. I think this fuel is friendship, and the potential lack of it.

I begin away from the text, my concerns being Mary Shelly’s life at the time of the writing. We’ve noted in class the talk of competition that lead to the writing, good friends and respected peers, driven together by the climate, boasting of the yarns they can spin. This is the kind of setting that could are around to help spend time when certain factors make options slim; however, in the A & E piece, we saw that Percy was having an affair with Mary’s cousin, who was, in turn, having an affair therefore, the very institution that is friendship.  I think these contradictions were in the back of Mary’s mind when she took to the work and that, in the work, she wanted to show all of the potential for benevolence, and atrocity, that friendship possesses.

The first manner by which she accomplishes this goal is the form that the novel takes. Walton is writing letters to his sister because he has “no friend.”  He admits that his letters are a “poor medium for the communication of feeling.”  These passages are evidence of a person’s need to share the triumphs and tragedies of life, which may be the primary goal of friendship.  The fact that Walton is writing letters reminds us of how it is to share our lives when we have no friends to serve as outlets, and we commiserate with his loneliness.

With the coming of Victor Frankenstein to his vessel, we are introduced to the man who could be the friend who will end his loneliness. Even having a good idea as to how the book progresses, I find myself hoping that my ideas are mislead, and that these two interesting and well-spoken men will be allowed to form a friendship that prevails against the tragedies that, I fear, loom ahead. I think this helps me to better understand the emotions of those who read the piece before Hollywood did it’s injustices.

If, with Walton’s letters, we are led to imagine a life removed from friends, then,  with Victor’s account, we are introduced to a life which has known great bounty in the realms of friendship, as well as the reasons for which he adopts his chosen studies. Through the early part of his account, he speaks of the people in his life who have made it an enjoyable and shared process. He says of his relationship with Elizabeth, “We were strangers to any species of disunion and dispute; for although there was a great dissimilitude in our characters, there was harmony in that very dissimilitude”(18). It is on this page that he also introduces us to Clerval, of whom, he says, “we were never completely happy when Clerval was absent.” Of his parents he says, “No youth could have passed as happily as mine.  My parents were indulgent…” (18).

Sometimes we fail to think of family members as friends. Maybe it’s because we don’t choose them, rather, we are born into their circles, and they ours.  We can reasonably say that sharing familial ties does not necessarily make someone a friend, which is not to say that one can’t be a friend because they are family.  Speaking for myself, my best friends are my family, and I believe this was also true for victor.  Mary tries to establish this with the letter Alphonse writes to Victor upon the death of William.  “Enter the house of mourning, my friend, but with kindness and affection for those who love you, and not with hatred for your enemies”(39).  This comes near the end of a letter written in the tones and wordings of a friend, informative, considerate and beseeching, rather than those that one might deem more fatherly, terse, abrupt and commanding. I find no evidence in the script that Alphonse has any notion other than that he and his son are peers, equals. I imagine that, given the rift between Mary and her own father, as a result of her elopement with Percy, this is evidence of her desire for a positive, working relationship with him.

Expanding on this, I feel that the ties Victor has to the special people in his life lead him to his chosen studies. He is a man who was raised in great comfort. He knows people to be kind and he knows life to be good. What else would one with such knowledge and fondness care to do with his life than study the possibility of prolonging life for the benefit of others?

Where the early part of the novel is used to establish the passions which fuel Victor’s work, the next goal seems to be to instill the reward of friendship, that one’s friends are there not only when times are grand, but when times are rough, as well. I see this change in mentality happening with Victor’s animation and rejection of his creation. This is, without question, the most desolate he has ever felt. This is the point in his life where he won’t survive if there is not someone to sacrifice his or her own agenda to tend to him. Enter Clerval. If Clerval doesn’t come, Victor dies. The end.

Following his period of poor health, Clerval presents to him the letter from Elizabeth. This letter does many things for Victor. It makes him aware of the care and concern of others. It betters his mood by letting him know that his loved ones are all healthy and well. It brings him up to date on matters that he would have inquired about, had he been well and strong enough to do so. In short, it acts as a tool of friendship for one who is in need of such.

We see evidence of Clerval working to continue his rehabilitation, with Victor saying:

 

Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow-

creatures, and rendered me unsocial; but Clerval called forth the

better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the

aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children. Excellent

friend! How sincerely did you love me, and endeavor to elevate

my mind, until it was on a level with your own.(38)

 

With the trial of Justine, we are reminded of the possible consequences of friendship betrayed, or friendships that aren’t true friendships in the first place. In her address to the court Elizabeth puts this into words: “when I see a fellow-creature about to perish through cowardice of her pretended friends, I wish to be allowed to speak, that I may say what I know of her character”(46). As her words lay blame and guilt on those of whom she speaks, her own actions prove the opposite. Here a girl who took death so hard that she wven blamed herself in that it was she who put the locket on William’s neck. Yet, when evidence is brought forth, however circumstantial, it is she who goes to the defense of the accused. Where Clerval was there for Victor when there was no one else, Elizabeth is there for Justine when the same is true. She speaks of the depths of her friendship: “I wish,” cried she, “that I were to die with you; I cannot live in this world of misery”(48). And such are the feelings reciprocated, that Justine, in the face of death, can bless her with such a lively and positive farewell: “may heaven in it’s bounty bless and preserve you; may this be the last misfortune that you will ever suffer. Live, and be happy, and make others so”(49).

The next turn encompasses the few pages between the death of Justine, and Victor meeting his creation.  With these passages we are shown the weight of friendship lost upon the persons who have lost it.  Elizabeth is so distraught that she “no longer see_SN the world and its work as they before appeared “(52), yet, she is still devoted to victor so much that she thinks of his own misery:  Be calm, my dear Victor, I would sacrifice my life to your peace”(53).  But Victor will have no peace, for, as much as Elizabeth has lost, but he knows that it was his hand that brought about the tragedies.

The belief that stressing the importance of friendship is the goal of this work is next supported by the account told to victor by his creation. Heretofore, we have been given information that we can more easily understand by drawing on similar happenstance in our own lives. The creation’s tale makes us look at friendship, in all our own lives. The creation’s tale makes us look at friendship, in all of its possible forms, from the perspective of one who has, for all intents and purposes, had to spend the entirety of his existence outside of its realms. In the song Wots…Uh The deal, written by Roger Waters and David Gilmour for Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds LP(Capitol Records, 1972), this phrase is turned: “I’m the man on the outside, looking in.” I heard this line, as well as the entire song, playing endlessly in the heart of the creation as he wound out his tale. I heard it so much that I decided to put the CD on and just let it play, seemingly as endlessly. I would listen as the song wound out in much the same manner: “Take me in from the cold, turn my led into gold, there’s a chilled wind blowing in my soul, and I think I’m growing old.” I would hear this cried from the creation’s heart. I would get to the song’s happy ending, which, not coincidentally, is the part of the song which is playing as I write these words; I would get here, “now that I’m the man on in the inside, looking out,” and, again, I would find myself hoping that the book would take turns I didn’t foresee it taking, like I hope that James Mason won’t shoot Peter Sellers every time I watch Kubrick’s  Lolita. Futility. Both creator and creation had become my friends, and I wanted the happy ending I knew was not ahead. Perhaps Waters and Gilmour felt the same, and chose to combine their crafts to rewrite Shelly’s ending.

Here, trained by Hollywood’s depiction of this tale, yet knowing that the creation speaks in the novel, I was blown away by both the measure of the being’s thought processes, evident in his incredible vocabulary and language skills, and the speed at which he gets into heavy conversation. Maybe I’m trained by those who produce lagging drama, so as to create a heightened air of suspense; whatever, I was all set for a couple pages of hemming and hawing. A couple of pages to rest my notetaking hand, perhaps. I was afforded no such luxury. Instead my pen is flying to keep up with the food of what became the focus of my research on page 37. The margins of pages 56 and 57 are riddled as I process it: Friendship. Lack of friendship. Evidence of the void of friendship.

Less than half a page beyond the first, official meeting of the two, the creation tells his maker the force that drives him: “Life, although it may be only the accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it”(56). It is dear to him because, though he knows only misery and loneliness, in friendship, he has seen the contradictory evidence which gives him hope: “Every where I see bliss…,”(57). The measure of grief brought on by lack of friendship is underscored: “Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone?”(57). The creation draws the void of friendship, and the feelings so birthed:

 

The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have

wandered  here many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not

fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not

grudge. These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than

your fellow-beings. If the multitude of mankind knew of my

existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my

destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will

keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall

share my wretchedness.(57)

 

Shelly uses the presence of the cottagers to bring out the good basic natures of the creation: “when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys”(64). She also uses them to reinforce to the creation just what he is lacking. Note what friendship does to the previously distraught Felix, upon Safie’s arrival:

 

Felix seemed ravished with delight when he saw her, every trait

of sorrow vanished from his face, and it instantly expressed a

degree of ecstatic joy, of which I could have hardly believed it

capable; his eyes sparkled, as his cheek flushed with pleasure;

and at that moment I thought him as beautiful as the

stranger.(67)

 

She has the creation do the good deeds for his hosts to prove the benevolence of which he is capable. If the creation doesn’t have the capability for friendship, despite his hopes, the novel has no force.

When he feels he may risk the flimsy ties that he has formed with the cottagers, he admits: “I postponed this attempt for some months longer; for the importance attached to its success inspired me with dread lest I should fail”(75)

When, Mary relies on the creation himself to tell us how much difference his life would be if he had but just one mate he is asking Victor to create: “My evil passions will have fled, for I shall meet with sympathy; my life will flow quietly away, and, in my dying moments, I shall not curse my maker”(85).

Beyond this, there is little evidence of friendship in the novel. Elizabeth and Alphonse bestow upon Victor their usual blessings and hopes, this time as he readies himself for his two-year tour with Clerval. Clerval, himself, shows Victor similar feeling when he asks that he break his solitary study and join him in Paris. Very little outside of that. I feel that the author makes such an abrupt break with what has been, heretofore, the vessel of the work, to draw for us the abrupt line it is that separates an existence blessed with friendship, and one void of it. I made 22 notes of friendship in the margins of pages 37 through 95, but only one in the last 35 pages of the book. Here, the overall shape of the novel is used to enforce the theme: The early parts of the novel represent what a person does without the outlet of friendship. The next part, which include all of Victor’s account up until he destroys work on his creation’s mate, are used to show us the faces that friendship can wear, from it’s most atrocious incarnations, to its most benevolent. This third part, these last 35 pages, are desolate and nearly void of anything as positive of friendship.

The one time that I noted friendship over those final pages comes when Victor speaks of the “spirit of good” that “followed and directed _hisN steps.” I feel that his belief in a benevolent spirit begins with meals that were provided: “Sometimes, when nature overcome by hunger, sunk under the exhaustion, a repast was prepared for me in the desert, that restored and inspirited me”(119). Concerning this, marginal notes read: The creation sets out these meals as he did the firewood for the cottagers. Even an enemy is a friend when they provide one’s only companionship. I feel the other omens he attributes to this spirit (i.e. the good sleep, the rain), are not more common, rather, the food has made him believe in the existence of this spirit, and therefore, he begins to note the positives of his circumstance. I feel Shelly uses this as the final proof of the offerings of friendship, even from the bitterest enemies.

There is one final piece of the text that needs to be looked at before I can call this study complete. I ask myself what I feel to be the primary goal of this novel, within the action of the text. What is the goal that, in a perfect world, would be accomplished? Is it that Victor would create a being which can mesh with human society? I don’t think so. Is it that the creation would accept its fate and go off into the deserts and glaciers and leave humanity as it was before, and that Victor would be able to go about his studies, in the warm glow of his friends and family? Nor do I think this is it. The novel is the product of Walton, is it not? Allowing this, is it not safe to say that the achieved goal that would best serve the action of the book would be for Walton to reach his destination? If the phrase “the sympathies necessary for being” describes the fuel by which the novel is propelled, is it not also reasonable to think that Walton’s failure is due to a lack of these sympathies? He is writing letters because, on a ship with a full crew he has no friend. On page 9 he refers to the men he has hired to that point as “_appearing to be men on whom I can depend.” They “appear” to be thus, yet, he can not be sure, because they are not his friends. Toward him, they do not possess these “sympathies” noted, and thus, Walton returns home having failed.

 

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